Tower of Jewels
Along with Lunar New Year and the coming of spring, tomorrow is Chinese New Year (Gong Xi Fa Cai, Gong Hey Fat Choy!) ushering in the Year of the Goat. Here in the US, this celebration represents a union of East and West, a crossing of cultural lines for those who choose to honor the traditions and rituals (e.g. cleaning, ‘sweeping away the bad luck’ for the year, sharing special meals with family and friends, remembering those no longer with us…) Traditionally, on the night before, people also lit firecrackers to scare away evil spirits, keeping their household doors sealed – not to be reopened until the new morning – in a ritual called “opening the door of fortune” … May you take this opportunity to reach into another culture to find deeper connections and import its richness into your own life.
This week also marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or World’s Fair. Held in San Francisco from February 20th to December 4th, 1915, it was another celebration of union, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, via the Panama Canal, which had just been completed the summer before. The importance of this feat was immeasurable, with its potential to significantly affect trade routes (historically a predictor of mankind’s ability to raise empires or doom civilizations, as I was recently reminded by my Ancient Civ studying 6th grader) in a time prior to the development of commercial aviation (and small commercial drones, natch Amazon). The great city of San Francisco’s civic celebration – rising again after the devastating 1906 earthquake – was also an international celebration, symbolizing world progress.
The exposition showcased a wide range of magnificent architectural and artistic feats (palaces, courts, sculptures, paintings, murals) but the architectural centerpiece (and tallest building by far at 43 stories) was the Tower of Jewels, covered in upwards of 100,000 faceted cut glass jewels. These jewels were known as ‘Novagems’, mirror-backed beauties in 8 different colors, suspended from individual brass hooks, which covered the entire building.
As described in www.SanFranciscoMemories.com: On a few special occasions, they put on an event known as “Burning the Tower” where (according to Todd’s, The Story of the Exposition), “Concealed ruby lights, and pans of red fire behind the colonnades on the different galleries, seemed to turn the whole gigantic structure into a pyramid of incandescent metal, glowing toward white heat and about to melt. From the great vaulted base to the top of the sphere, it had the unstable effulgence of a charge in a furnace, and yet it did not melt, however much you expected it to, but stood and burned like some sentient thing doomed to eternal torment.”
This particular ‘gem’ detail struck a chord, as the company that created Novagems was located in the Phelan Building – a wonderful old SF Flatiron-style building on Market Street, built by a former mayor of San Francisco who was a passionate supporter of the arts. He rebuilt the Phelan Building – housing numerous jewelers and artisans – immediately following the earthquake disaster of 1906, which had badly damaged the original Phelan Building. Over the past century, it’s remained the home of hundreds of jewelers and a prominent jewelry-making school, Revere Academy.
(The purchase by new owners in 2008 eventually led to the evacuation of the jewelers and the school, so the building is no longer the place of creativity long ago imagined for San Franciscans. You can read more about this unfortunate history in a Ganoksin article by Christine Dhein here.)
Wishing you a peaceful, happy and successful New Year ~